I was thinking of writing a response to Sam Harris’s recent bleat against Francis Collins. Collins, a world-class researcher, is also a medical doctor to whom my family owes considerable gratitude; when he was actually practicing medicine years ago, he treated one of our family members. But that’s not why I would want to respond to Sam Harris. It’s because there’s so much that needs to be said.
David Heddle beat me to it with all the best responses. Still I think there’s more to be said about this part of what David wrote:
Science more or less dispenses with all criteria except number one. Science is a meritocracy, one of the few true meritocracies. What has always been relevant in science is: what is the quality of your work? and, to a lesser extent, what is the volume of your work?
We have to bear in mind that the NIH position is not just a scientific position but an administrative/leadership/policy/science position. Does Francis Collins’s Christianity hinder his fulfilling any of the extra-scientific aspects of the job? Part of the answer we can settle quickly. Collins was a Christian when he led the Human Genome project, which was an administrative/leadership/science position. He did a not-too-shabby bit of work there, so based on his resume we ought to allow that he knows how to do those parts of the job.
That leaves policy. (He dealt with policy in the Human Genome Project, too, according to a talk I have heard him give on it, but not at the level he would at the NIH.) This is where Sam Harris might be able to bring a charge that could stick, if he could show that Francis Collins’s Christianity would lead him to adopt some irrational, un-ungodly policy with respect to science in America. So now I’m re-reading Harris’s article to see what kind of policy dangers Collins might pose to the Western world as NIH head. Harris begins with considerable bluster against faith and reason coinciding, but that can’t be it, because clearly he can’t charge Collins with being a poor scientist. Also, as David Heddle points out, there’s an empirical question there that Harris et al. have conveniently ignored:
I have repeatedly asked, on some enormously popular websites such as Myers’s own Pharyngula, for someone, anyone, to demonstrate the science/faith incompatibility charge. The people making this claim are supposed to be scientists or at least scientifically literate. They should understand that a hypothesis that cannot lend itself to testing is inherently unscientific. As many of you know, I proposed a test: I would provide ten peer-reviewed scientific papers, five from believers and five from unbelievers. If the charge that religion and science are incompatible is more than just words, we can posit that it should be possible to detect which papers are polluted by the author’s religion. No one has ever accepted the challenge.
Harris’s major complaint with respect to Collins’s science is that Collins believes God had a part in the process of evolution: he is a theistic evolutionist (though he prefers a different term for it that escapes me at the moment). If there were a scientific test that could empirically disprove theistic evolution, Harris might have a point. But there isn’t one. So this is not a complaint about Collins’s science after all. It’s a complaint about Collins’s religion, masquerading as a concern about his science.
The same goes for this that Harris wrote after quoting some of Collins’s Christian beliefs:
Is it really so difficult to perceive a conflict between Collins’ science and his religion?
It’s not that at all that Collins fails as a scientist, just that there’s something about his religion that poses a problem. Harris compares Collins with James Watson whose career was “defenestrated” (thrown out the window) when he made a stupid remark about race. At least he is candid here about it being a political issue, not a scientific one. Racial bigotry is a real political liability, as it should be. Harris thinks faith in God ought to be an political liability at the same level as racial bigotry.
We’ll come back to that point at the end. Meanwhile I continue to look through Harris’s article for any other policy-related deficiency in Francis Collins. He describes Collins’s conversion experience, and finds that Collins is lacking in good sense or reason. For example:
Collins’ ignorance of world religion is prodigious. For instance, he regularly repeats the Christian talking point about Jesus being the only person in human history who ever claimed to be God (as though this would render the opinions of an uneducated carpenter of the 1st century especially credible). Collins seems oblivious to the fact that saints, yogis, charlatans, and schizophrenics by the thousands claim to be God at this very moment, and it has always been thus. Forty years ago, a very unprepossessing Charles Manson convinced a rather large band of misfits in the San Fernando Valley that he was both God and Jesus
Harris’s ignorance of Jesus among world religious leaders is prodigious. Only Jesus made his claim from within the context of the most monotheistic culture ever to rise, bar the two (Christianity and Islam) that followed in its path. When yogis or “saints” (not Christian saints, obviously) make claims of deity, they’re not making the same claim Jesus made. When charlatans or Charles Manson made the claim, it was obvious they were fakes or madmen. Neither of those is obvious or even credible in the case of Jesus Christ: fakes and madmen do not launch movements that last for millenia and produce the kind of good that Christianity has done. They do not teach with the wisdom Jesus taught. They do not exhibit the humility Jesus did, or make the sacrifice that he made. They do not rise from the dead, either.
Intending to put Collins’s rationality on the rotisserie, Harris continues to skewer himself instead:
It should be obvious that if a frozen waterfall can confirm the specific tenets of Christianity, anything can confirm anything.
It should be obvious that was not what Collins claimed the waterfall did for him. It was just a moment that contributed to his developing view of God, along with many other factors. Harris misrepresented him badly, arguing in obvious bad faith. He is calling Collins irrational, but his proof thereof is seriously lacking.
Does Harris have anything better to offer? The next part of his article might be more promising. This quote begins with Collins’s words, followed by Harris’s response:
As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted…. (Collins, 2006, p.178)
God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law. (Ibid, p. 200-201)
Imagine: the year is 2006; half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old; our president had just used his first veto to block federal funding for the most promising medical research on religious grounds; and one of the foremost scientists in the land had that to say, straight from the heart (if not the brain).
First of all, Harris is wrong about “the most promising medical research.” Embryonic stem cells’ medical success has been overwhelmingly negative, while adult or other stem cell research has been quite fruitful. Second, Harris is aghast at Collins’s conclusion that some questions cannot be answered by science. But Collins is right: some questions can’t be answered by science. Does Harris not know that? What really sets him off, though, is that Collins supplies a Christian-based answer to some of those questions.
He scoffs at Collins’s approval of certain religious thinkers, including John Polkinghorne, also a scientist himself. Harris says of Polkinghorne,
The problem, however, is that it is impossible to differentiate his writing on religion—which now fills an entire shelf of books—from an extraordinarily patient Sokal-style hoax [link added].
No, Mr. Harris. Maybe you can’t tell the two apart, but what does that signify? I couldn’t tell a mathematically-intense physics article from a Sokal hoax because I don’t know the field. But I don’t point at all mathematically-intense physics articles and call them nonsense. That would just highlight how huge is my ignorance: not only that I don’t know the field, but that I don’t know that I don’t know the field. If you can’t tell Polkinghorne’s theology from nonsense, it’s because (as you’ve already demonstrated), you don’t know what you’re talking about. Do you know that you don’t know?
So where we on our search for a policy-related deficiency in Francis Collins? Harris didn’t do too well in showing that Collins lacks reasoning ability. He complained about Collins’s belief that some questions can’t be answered by science, but Collins is simply right about that. All of Harris’s anti-Christian opinionating is marred by his patent ignorance (or is it willful misrepresentation?) of the faith. So let’s keep looking.
Again he refers to Collins’s beliefs and responds,
How many scientific laws would be violated by such a scheme? One is tempted to say “all of them.”
Here, though, he wanders out of science into metaphysics with the word “law.” Sure, there are regularities in science. I have an article coming soon on BreakPoint explaining why this is completely compatible with the Christian view of God. To assume that regularities are unbreakable laws, however, is to move beyond what science can prove and into metaphysical thinking. It is not scientific to refer to “scientific laws” in that sense.
So here we have Harris’s metaphysics pitted against Collins’s religious beliefs. Which position disqualifies a person as a spokesman/leader for science? Is it not the one that is so confused it cannot tell the difference between science and metaphysics?
I could go on, but the same kind of thing appears in Harris’s article over and over again. Let’s put the matter to rest: Harris has no good scientific reason to think Collins is unqualified to lead in a policy position. He does a very poor job of making his case that Collins’s rationality is suspect. He gets nowhere at all in proving that Collins’s faith contradicts science. What does he have left? Nothing but this: Collins is the wrong religion. Harris is calling for him to be excluded from a senior Federal government position because he fails a religious test. What do we call this? Bigotry? Unconstitutional? A denial of America’s first and most basic freedom? All of those certainly.
David Heddle said this, too:
Harris hates Christianity. When it cannot be ignored, he goes on the offensive.
We could also call it hatred.